Science Exchange Stories: Interview with Shobhit Agrawal

November 6, 2013 | Posted by Tess Mayall in Scientist Profile |
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Shobhit Agrawal on his way to Antarctica.

When Shobhit was in the final stages of his PhD he ran into an issue, he needed sequencing done for his project, but his institute didn’t have the sequencing platform he needed. With his advisor in Antarctica, it would be awhile before he even knew if he could get the outsourcing reimbursed, so he went out on a limb, he fronted the cost of the sequencing himself and used the DNA Sequencing Facility on Science Exchange to get results quicker.

I talked to Shobhit about his research, outsourcing experiments, and the future of PhD programs. His outlook is both unique and inspirational. Check out his thoughts below:

Q: What do you research at the Alfred Wegner Institute?

A: My research has two aspects to it. One is to see what influence the climate has on the diversity of the Antarctic species, particularly the benthic species (crustaceans, family of crabs, shrimps etc). So, I see how climactic events shaped the benthic diversity, how many species are there, how did evolution work. What we discover is that Antarctica is much more diverse than people originally thought.

Secondly, we are working on something new, which perhaps has bigger consequences for the world. We try to detect the signals the past glacial conditions embedded in the genome of Antarctic organisms. These results will be of great significance for constructing better ice-sheet models, which are, as yet, based on only geological data. This in turn will help us in inferring the past and predicting future climate scenarios.

Q: What are the implications of this research on a larger scale?

A: It has great and important predictions for our current climate. In order to keep our coastal cities from going under water, we need to be more accurate about these things.

The general trend in evolutionary biology is that you look at a geological phenomenon and then you look at the genetic data to correlate and see what the geology has said. My study reverses the trend and shows that evolutionary biology actually has a lot to show us about the climate.

The basic fact is who gets affected the most if the climate changes? The animals. Life. So life should reflect the environmental changes.

Shobhit Agrawal doing research in Antarctica.

Q: Have you faced criticism of your decision to outsource your lab work?

A: Not really, because I started outsourcing much later. I started with the normal lab work, I had to do a lot for several years, then, finally, I was in the position to actually outsource some of it and my boss was totally supportive of that.

Actually I believe if I was able to outsource from the beginning my life would have been much more interesting. I would’ve had more time to think about the data analyses rather than face the issues in the lab.

Q: Does outsourcing your lab work undermine your credibility?

A: I think that one should not be shy of outsourcing. The evolution of any profession is automation and it’s based on thinking. Thinkers survive in the market, because the mechanical aspect will someday be provided by machines or outsourcing.

So I think the credibility of a graduate student relies on the thinking. How is he going to make sense of the data? The data is no longer the talent part, unless you are a technical PhD. My idea is that the mechanical work can be outsourced without a problem and that should not affect your credibility, because in the end you have to think about the data, hypothesize about it, and make sense of it.

Q: Do you have any advice for other PhD’s trying to make the transition into an outsource-based method?

A: I would say that one should have two things in mind. One is the experimental design of your work. When someone starts a PhD it should be very clear what their hypotheses are i.e. what questions they want to answer with their data. Science Exchange makes your life much easier, because the data generation part is totally taken away from you, but it does not make the hypothesis for you. It doesn’t tell you how to design your experiment. The time saved on outsourcing should be spent planning their experiment. Don’t get carried away that you can outsource, but on the other hand be happy that you can outsource the tedious work. However, the planning is still the most important thing.

Secondly, one has to concentrate more on analyzing data rather than just generating it. So the time you gain from outsourcing should be invested very wisely on planning the experiment, in addition to deciding on your questions and hypothesis. The second part is to concentrate on techniques to analyze the data.

A PhD should be thinking more. Science Exchange should make that possible.

Browse any of Science Exchange’s 2000+ experiments here.

About the author

Tess builds Science Exchange’s online and offline community of scientists and providers. She is a geologist by training, but considers herself a friend of scientists near and far.

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